Farmers can cash in on green mealies in winter

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By John Basera.
Gocha/green mealie production is one venture with a very lucrative Return On Investment (ROI), which farmers can adopt in irrigation schemes, A2, A1, large and small scale farming sectors to enhance farm cash flows.

Gocha mealie as a venture follows a basic gross margin principle that if you invest a dollar you can get at least 2.5 fold or more return assuming best agronomic practices. Normally the cost of production for gocha mealie averages up to $1,300 per hectare at full absorption (i.e. all variable costs incorporated e.g fertilisers, seed, irrigation costs, labour, to mention just the major variable cost drivers).

What do you get out of such an investment per hectare? That is a top-line question! If everything is done optimally, and farmers adopt GAPs (Good Agronomic Practices) as we strongly recommend, a minimum of 3,400 dozens of mealies per hectare can be harvested, with each dozen fetching prices ranging from $1.00 to $3.00 depending on supply fluctuations. It means in monetary terms a farmer can realise a minimum of $3400 and even up to $7,000 after a period of at most 4 months on a per hectare basis, giving lucrative margins. This income can be used for wages, farm equipment maintenance, and summer cropping preparations among other day to day petty cash needs on the farm. This creates cash flow autarky (self-sufficiency) and spread on the farms.

I can imagine some A2 farmers in Mashonaland West, Central, East, Manicaland, Masvingo, Midlands and Matebeleland who are doing more than 20ha of gocha mealies (some even up to 40ha), A1 farmers doing 3-5ha, and irrigation scheme farmers doing 0.5ha! …..Imagine the returns!

This is lucrative and rewarding! – isn’t it? It is really a big deal especially when everything is done optimally from varietal choice & preparation right up to harvesting and marketing. Ultimately the key is to produce long, fat, attractive and sellable cobs. We will give some agronomic considerations and tips for green mealie production in this article as being enunciated by the GAPs principle.

The key principle for gocha mealie is growing appropriate hybrids under good management to obtain first grade green mealie cobs which can earn premium prices on the market. Generally we recommend staggering of green mealie plantings to stretch the selling window and for consistency in supply.

What is the optimum planting time?

Planting window is a very critical consideration when producing green mealie as farmers need to consider frost avoidance as it can burn the crop (especially at the early stages) and cause flower sterility and lead to unsellable small cobs. We recommend farmers to plant after frost occurrence in their regions! Generally the optimum sowing time is after the last week of July in the Highveld areas. In the Lowveld, where generally frost seldom occurs, farmers can capitalise and plant at anytime and get higher prices.

How important is land preparation?

We recommend that soils should be prepared to a fine tilth to ensure good germination & emergence, and also to aid moisture conversation. Maize prefers well prepared seedbed with a depth of 15-30cm. To achieve this, farmers need to follow the conventional tillage procedure of ploughing, discing and rolling. However we also recommend farmers to follow the conservational tillage techniques also known as zero or minimum tillage as another option. Land preparation also involves conditioning the soil following soil analysis prescriptions. Soil conditioners such as lime and or gypsum can be applied to adjust pH to optimum levels and to improve the soil structure, respectively.

Can one plant any hybrid?

The desired traits of a green mealie variety; are a combination of sweet taste, long shelf life, slow to medium dry down and large (long & fat) ears. Complimentary traits are high grain yield potential, large kernel size and colour (yellow or white), good popping and roasting ability. Leading varieties on the gocha mealie market are Seed Co’s SC727 and SC719-late white hybrids (popularly dubbed Cassa Banana on the green mealie  market), SC608 a yellow medium maturing hybrid (dubbed Fire Cracker on the green mealie market). SC637 (famously called Torai Mari) and SC533 are the other options in the medium and early white maturity groups. SC403 is generally favoured for its sizable cob, deep white kernels and a good shelf life. This short season hybrid has some great tolerance & resistance to maize streak virus (MSV). It also offers farmers great options for a good green mealie cropping turnover per year.

Varietal choice is a key market consideration, as farmers risk getting ‘stuck’ with dozens of green mealies if they use other varieties than the above that are not preferred on the market. Other varieties include SC 627, SC513 and SC529.

What is the optimum plant population for green maize?

Planting can be done by machinery or hand. We recommend farmers to calibrate their planters to achieve the optimum spacing to achieve large (fat and long), attractive cobs. We recommend a spacing of 90cm inter-row and 23-26cm & intra-row to achieve a population of up to 48 000 plants per ha. Under good management, at least 85 percentof the total population should go to the premium grade for green mealie market while the 15 percentcan be sold as second grade or dried as grain for other uses. On a per hectare basis the target harvestable population should be at least 3,400 dozens.

Always plant in fertile soil

Firstly farmers MUST sample their soils for pH and fertility analysis. If there are any imbalances in the soil pH and fertility, they must be corrected promptly e.g low pH is corrected by liming. Use of appropriate liming agents (dolomitic or calcitic lime) is recommended as this enhances fertiliser use efficiency. The optimum pH for maize is 5.2 – 6.8 on a Calcium Chloride scale.

For more appreciation on the importance of pH on crop development, farmers should refer to the following table showing NPK use efficiency vs pH levels: This is critical information.

Secondly application of fertilisers is heavily recommended if we are to get good crop establishment and marketable cobs. The principle is to apply the right quantities of the right type of fertiliser at the right time and place. Seed Co recommends that fertilisation management should follow prescriptions from the soil analysis recommendations. However, the general recommendation for fertilisers is; Compound D {7:14:7} basal dressing (400kg/ha) at planting and top dressing (300-350kg/ha) at 4 weeks after emergence using Ammonium Nitrate or Urea. Farmers are also recommended to adopt high analysis blends as basal options. Top dressing can be applied by vaicon spreaders, fertiliser applicators, or by hand as early as 2-3 weeks after crop emergence. In some cases farmers can improvise with a chola (empty bag with a hole and a pipe protruding). Split applications of top dressing fertilisers can be recommended in loose soils (with clay content of less than 20 %) i.e. sandy and sand loamy soils.

Fertiliser application is essential for plant root development, leaf surface area expansion, cob development and filling, and ultimately productivity.

NB: All fertility management practices must be based on proper full soil analysis recommendations by approved laboratories. Machine (and hand/fertiliser applicators) calibrations are key for optimum crop establishment, proper use of chemicals and fertilisers and attaining budgeted yield levels

Contact Seed Co Agronomy team, Agritex or equipment companies for assistance on calibrations of various accessories. Moisture management has to be spot on!

This is a very crucial aspect in green mealie production. Irrigate to almost field capacity after planting and after day 5 follow through with enough to break the crust for good crop emergence. Remember good crop emergence and establishment is key for good stand count and harvestable cobs. It’s a game of numbers (of cobs/dozens/ha)! Irrigation scheduling should be based on soil type, rate of evaporation and crop stage. Generally a 25-30mm is enough on a 7-10 days irrigation cycle. Up to 600mm of well scheduled irrigation is required for a good gocha mealie crop.

The most important disease for winter gocha mealie is Maize Streak Virus (MSV) spread by a leaf hopper vector, (Cicadulina Mbila). Seed Co recommends farmers to dress their seed with imidachloprid (Gaucho, Cruzer & Poncho) at pre-planting. Imidacloprid is a systemic insecticide that acts as an insect neurotoxin with no toxicity to mammals & humans and very low eco and phytotoxicity. On the other hand, cut worms are a catastrophe especially after crop emergence. We recommend pesticide sprays of Lambda after emergence or with pre-emergence herbicides for the control of this pest. Fall Army Worm can also cause  damage to the crop and early scouting and early spraying are recommended.

Seed Co strongly recommends the use of pre & post-emergence herbicides to ensure weed free fields in the early growth stages of the crop. For instance in maize the field must be weed-free for the first 10-12 weeks of the crop cycle to ensure undisturbed and efficient water and nutrient uptake by the maize crop. It should be noted that if a farmer fails to control weeds in the first 5 weeks of the crop cycle, then 50 percentof the yield is chewed by competition, generally. Generally, weed pressure (especially grasses) start to rise when temperatures rise in August onwards!

NB: Consult Agrochemical companies for more information on chemicals. Always read chemical labels carefully, use safe practices and adequate protective gear during application.

What are the harvesting and marketing tips?

Maize grown for green mealies should be harvested well before reaching physiological maturity. Preference with regards to the optimum harvesting window varies from market to market. Generically early soft dough stage (just after milk stage) is regarded as the best time for harvesting green mealies, which is about 3 weeks after flowering depending on variety. It is prudent to do market research 3 or 4 weeks before the intended harvest time. Customers in the market include , retailers, fresh produce markets like fresh produce merchants and Misika  in major cities and towns, as well as directly to individuals.

  • John Basera is Seed Co Head of Agronomy. He can be contacted on +263 772 413 184/john.basera@seedcogroup.com

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